The Upside of Anger

Photo: Alex Cayley

Liev Schreiber enters on cue, upstage left, into what looks like a radio station, holding a coffee cup and a Danish. He’s rehearsing the part of Barry Champlain, the acerbic call-in host of Eric Bogosian’s eighties screed Talk Radio, a role for which he’s grown a gray-flecked beard, and there’s a dash of nicotine gravel in his booming voice. “I’m getting a fuckin’ gun. Kill ’em all!” Barry shouts to his producers—his aggro take on the “traffic was a bitch” routine. But then Schreiber suddenly raises his arms and stops rehearsal.

“Hey, I just thought of a food lazzi,” he says with a gleam in his eye (lazzi being a commedia dell’arte term for shtick). Director Robert Falls looks on, bemused, as Schreiber runs with it, waltzing two cast members around in a klutzy routine, as they pass his pastry behind their backs while Barry threatens to murder bad drivers. “It’s gonna be funny,” Schreiber keeps repeating. Falls finally pipes up: “What about your entrance applause?” he asks, worried about the obligatory audience cheer for a real-life celebrity onstage. “That’s what stops the entrance applause,” says Schreiber.

Over 45 minutes of rehearsal, Schreiber smokes three or four cigarettes, and it’s hard not to think he’s a little tense. During another scene, Michael Laurence, playing Barry’s operator, smacks the console.

“Could you—when you slammed your hand down like that, it just really stopped me,” says Schreiber. “It’s really distracting.”

“That was just me being enthusiastic about your acting,” says Laurence, rolling his eyes.

After his “food lazzi” is scrapped (“It’s just too cute, right?”), Schreiber apologizes to Laurence. “I wish you weren’t here for that,” he says to me later, sinking his lanky body into a plush couch in his dressing room. He chalks up his agitation to nicotine, caffeine, and “spillover” from his part. “It can make you kind of a pain in the ass. I’m bossy,” he says, holding my tape recorder to make sure it picks up his voice. “I’m still amped up right now.”

Isaac Liev Schreiber, 39, was raised in a Lower East Side cold-water flat by an overbearing hippie mother who nicknamed him “Huggy.” He rarely saw his dad and seems to have sought out father figures ever since. George C. Wolfe at the Public told him he was tailor-made for Shakespeare long before the Times implored, “More Shakespeare, Mr. Schreiber.” Dustin Hoffman, whose role in Midnight Cowboy made Schreiber believe a menschy, funny-looking actor could make it, ushered him into one of his subtlest film roles, as a menschy cuckold in A Walk on the Moon. After debuting as a director with Everything Is Illuminated, Schreiber spent interviews rhapsodizing about his late grandfather, a Ukrainian meat-delivery man who sank his life savings into securing his daughter’s custody of Schreiber.

But Bogosian was his first role model in the literal sense. Schreiber had only recently transferred from Brooklyn Tech to Friends Seminary—and left behind varsity football and petty thievery—when he paid a visit to Danceteria. “I saw this nut job doing this sort of queer insane lounge act,” he recalls. “He called himself Ricky D., and he was just growling and rolling through the crowd giving people shit, and they were throwing drinks and spitting on him, and it was very punk rock. And I thought, Holy shit, here it is! A new relationship to an audience.” It was Eric Bogosian.

Schreiber wrote him into a senior thesis on Brecht at Hampshire College, but it wasn’t just an intellectual fixation. He got a kick out of performing Bogosian’s angry monologues from Drinking in America in front of New England Wasps and wrote solo pieces of his own, “cheap ripoffs of Eric’s.” In one, he impersonated a neighborhood character, “a Puerto Rican guy who had one arm and had a machine that would peel oranges in a perfect circle. He was always trying to get kids to come into the garage where he kept it. And I knew what was going on—he was a pervert.” Schreiber’s teachers told him he’d be better off sticking to acting.

Even after Yale Drama and London’s Royal Academy, Schreiber still felt Bogosian’s pull. He tried out for SubUrbia in its first run, in 1994. “I made the huge mistake of telling him that he was my idol,” Schreiber says. He looks away, pauses for a moment. “I wasn’t getting any further in the audition.”

By the time of their next encounter, Schreiber had mastered a variety of parts—from Scream to Shakespeare—that taught him how to flash his sinister side, to subtly telegraph anger. Bogosian met him after his Tony-winning performance as the malevolent Ricky Roma in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. (He doesn’t remember Schreiber’s SubUrbia tryout.) “You don’t feel like you know the guy all the way,” Bogosian says. “There’s a mystery, like with a Richard Burton. You put this guy in a tuxedo and give him a cigarette and he’s the smoothest guy in the world and you don’t trust him for a second. As an actor, he has an ability to touch anger very easily and deeply.”

Of the Barry role, which he originally wrote for himself, Bogosian says, “He’ll become his character. In Barry mode, you’re kind of obnoxious to everyone you know.” When Schreiber came in the first day of rehearsal, visibly agitated after coming off a red-eye, Bogosian thought, My God, I’m looking at myself from twenty years ago.

But Schreiber doesn’t need mentors anymore; if anything, it’s his renown that will give Bogosian—and his first play on Broadway—a boost. What it does for Schreiber isn’t as clear. Maybe it reminds him of himself twenty years ago. “It’s funny,” Schreiber says, “because I do feel like I’m in a place in my life where I’m trying to move on from that reactive, inexplicable drive, like you’ve gotta be working all the time.” His Noho apartment (a few converted-loft blocks from his childhood squat on First and First) is a beautiful, spare triplex. “I quit complaining about gentrification as soon as I got a nice loft,” he says. The tabloids regularly spread rumors of his engagement to actress Naomi Watts. He cooks a lot. He’s seeing Watts’s nutritionist. He even plans to quit smoking—after this play, of course. “I’m starting to kind of wonder about slower tempos. And then this play comes up—which is, you know, it’s great!”

Though Schreiber is working on a script of his own (about Iraq; he won’t say more), he’s still too restless to wait for Hollywood: “Development is stasis. I can’t stand stasis.” He believes time has given him distance on characters as raw as Barry Champlain—but he’s also figured out that overcaffeinated nights full of profane tirades are a handy escape from more mundane frustrations. “Part of what I enjoyed about Ricky [Roma] was being able to draw on that kind of rage. There’s something cathartic about it. It’s like going for a shvitz. It really helps. Mind if I smoke?”

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The Upside of Anger